Kin of Gulf oil rig workers killed in explosion feel left out


JONESVILLE, La. (AP) – Roy Wyatt Kemp’s family is waiting for his headstone, black marble engraved with the deer and ducks he loved to hunt. The grave, however, lacks a body.

Seven months after the fateful Gulf of Mexico explosion that triggered one of history’s worst environmental disasters, the 27-year-old rig worker’s family knows very little beyond the fact that he never came home. Did he survive the initial blast? Did he suffer? Could he have been saved?

“I wonder every day what happened to my son. I don’t think it will ever leave me,” said his mother, Peggy.

Without a body, without answers and with only limited financial and emotional support, Kemp’s family and relatives of the 10 other workers who died on the BP-leased rig are left to wonder whether the oil giant’s promise to “make things right” applies to everyone but them.

From the small towns of central Mississippi to the cotton fields of central Louisiana to the cattle farms of southern Texas, relatives of the men, in interviews with The Associated Press, bemoaned that so much of the public focus has been on the oil spilled rather than the lives lost.

“There hasn’t been anybody associated with BP, Transocean or any of them that has sat down and really tried to give you their condolence and tell you what took place,” Peggy Kemp said.

As criminal investigations, congressional hearings and finger-pointing mount, the families of the dead want detailed explanations from BP and its partners of exactly how their loved ones perished in the April 20 disaster that ultimately spewed 170 million gallons of crude into the Gulf.

They want accountability for negligence. And they want the world to know that their loss cost them much more than a paycheck.

Thanksgiving will be tough for these families.

The holiday was drilling supervisor Jason Anderson’s favorite. He would have turned 36 on Monday. His wife wants to know why the companies cut corners.

“I don’t expect anybody to love my husband as much as I love him, and I don’t expect anybody to feel the same loss, but I expect them not to let money and dollar signs be above someone’s life and someone’s family,” Shelley Anderson said.

Jason Anderson began preparing a will in February and kept it in a spiral notebook. It sunk with the rig.

BP and its partners on the doomed Deepwater Horizon say they are not indifferent to the families’ suffering. When asked to respond to the relatives’ claims, the oil giant provided a one-sentence statement saying it extends its “deepest sympathies to the families and friends who have suffered such a terrible loss.”

Transocean, the company that owned the rig, has been paying out money to dependents. It also reached long-term settlements with three families and set up a charitable fund that distributed $130,000 to all the families in July. It said it wants to reach “amicable resolutions” with the remaining relatives.

Perhaps the companies’ most poignant tribute to the dead was the decision to imprint 11 stars on the well’s final cap.

None of the men worked directly for BP – nine worked for Transocean and two for M-I Swaco, a unit of the oil field services firm Schlumberger. However, BP was leasing the rig and it was the majority owner of the well that blew. The families report receiving no compensation from BP and say they have had little contact with the company beyond condolences offered at a May memorial service.

Most of the families said the money they received falls well short of compensating them for their losses.

Seven weeks ago, M-I Swaco ended support payments and health insurance for Michelle Jones, wife of mud engineer Gordon Jones, she said. A day after learning about The Associated Press’ planned story, the company told the Jones family it would resume payments but did not say anything about health insurance, said Gordon Jones’ brother, Chris.

The mother of Blair Manuel, the other M-I Swaco employee killed in the explosion, also said the company cut off payments.

In a statement, Schlumberger said it has provided financial support to the families and is “continuing to do so.” Both families say that, as of last week, they had received no further support payments from M-I Swaco.

Because the deaths happened on the high sea, a 1920s law could limit the companies’ liability to their workers’ lost earnings rather than their families’ pain and suffering.

Transocean filed a federal court petition May 13 seeking to limit its liability, arguing it didn’t cause the disaster and shouldn’t be responsible for injuries or losses. The petition listed relatives of the dead as potential claimants.

Shelley Anderson learned of the petition the day after Transocean CEO Steve Newman came to her house a few weeks after the explosion to offer condolences.

After the petition, she said, “I knew he wasn’t being sincere.”

Transocean said it filed the petition at the instruction of its insurers to preserve coverage.

Hardest of all for the families is the lifetime loss of love and support.

Courtney Kemp and her then 2-year-old daughter would count the days until her husband returned home from the rig.

“That was probably the hardest thing, telling her that daddy wasn’t coming home. It’s a lot for a little girl to handle,” the widow said.

Michelle Jones’ 6-month-old son Max, born three weeks after the explosion, never saw his father, Gordon. The Baton Rouge, La. man had arrived for his 21-day stint on the rig the day before the blast.

Six of the 11 dead had been scheduled to get off the rig the day after the explosion, after spending three weeks aboard. They were Kemp of Jonesville, La., Adam Weise of Yorktown, Texas, Karl Kleppinger of Natchez, Miss., Shane Roshto of Liberty, Miss., Donald Clark of Newellton, La., and Dewey Revette of State Line, Miss.

Also killed were Anderson of Midfield, Texas, Manuel of Gonzales, La., Aaron Burkeen of Philadelphia, Miss., and Stephen Curtis of Georgetown, La.

At 22, Roshto was the youngest of those who died. His wife filed a lawsuit after the explosion that said she was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Kleppinger’s grandmother, Barbara Thornhill, said of Thanksgiving without her grandson, a veteran of the first Gulf War, “We’ll just miss him and know that he’s in a good place.”

Weise’s mother, Arleen, now looks after her son’s Texas home, where the heads of deer and snake skins the avid hunter collected adorn the living room wall. Outside sits her son’s souped-up Ford F250 truck with its supersized tires below an elevated frame. The mother reached an undisclosed settlement with Transocean, but has received nothing from BP.

“They’re so much more than 11 men. These were husbands, fathers, sons,” she said as she flipped through pictures of her 24-year-old son.

Several of the families are suing for money. But what many want most are answers to their questions, chief among them: What happened to their men?

Michelle Jones wants to know if her husband, who got off the phone with her minutes before the explosion, was scared. “Was he thinking about me?” she said as Max snuggled with a stuffed tiger a few feet away.

Not all the families are angry.

Revette’s wife, Sherri, said she has a lot to be thankful for, like the 26 years she was married. “We can’t control and change anything, so my philosophy is to stay positive. Things happen for a reason.”

Manuel’s mother, Geneva, said that while her family has received nothing from BP and M-I Swaco cut off payments after her son’s death certificate was issued, money and support have come in from all over. The family received some 300 sympathy cards, and the LSU baseball team sent an autographed baseball to be placed in Blair Manuel’s bodiless casket.

Transocean gave bronze hard hats to the families, engraved with the men’s names and the inscription, “We will never forget.”

Without a body, the Burkeens remembered their son by placing a letter from his mother, a Superman shirt and other mementos in his casket.

His mother knows her son is gone, but still wonders if he floated to an island somewhere and is all right.

Burkeen’s sister, Janet Woodson, feels robbed. Her brother died on his wedding anniversary, and four days before his birthday. That whole week will never be the same for the family, Woodson said on a recent day at the cemetery, sobbing uncontrollably while picking dead branches from her brother’s bodiless grave.

“Eventually, the environment will take care of itself, the business will return, but those lives will never be back again,” she said.

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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